Funeral for 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh.

Photographer: Oren Ziv

Violence in the Name of the Messiah

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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In July, a house in the Palestinian village of Duma was firebombed. A family of four was inside: Saad Dawabsheh, his wife and two children, ages 4 and 18 months. Only the 4-year-old survived.

The leading suspects for the attack are Jewish, part of a loose network known in Israel as “hilltop youth,” teenagers who grew up in small and often unsanctioned settlements in the West Bank, especially in the region they call Samaria. They perform what are called “price-tag” operations -- violent acts meant to send the message that any attempt to remove Jewish settlers from their land will carry a “price.”

They also think that they’re living in a messianic age and that the state of Israel has betrayed the true objective of exerting sovereignty over the biblical land of Israel. They aspire to create a Jewish monarchy, governed by religious law, which would relegate non-Jews to subordinate status. And they believe that a book called “The Law of the King” provides legal and religious justification for the killing of non-Jews, including children, in the pursuit of their revenge.

Although small, this movement represents a troubling new fusion of messianism, legalism and violence. Its aim is to create a sovereign territory under God’s law. For these reasons, it is worthy of serious analysis and consideration.

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Photographer: Assaf Harel

Building an outpost

The culture of the hilltop youth grew out of religious Zionism and the settler movement of the early 1970s. Yet the perpetrators of July’s attack are almost certainly part of a group of young people who’ve rejected even the extreme nationalism of the settlers as too weak and respectful of the state. For them, sovereignty over the land is a mystical project.

QuickTake Israeli Settlements

Hilltop youth is a term sometimes used generally to refer to anyone raised in the hardcore West Bank settlements that tend to be built on hills adjoining the Palestinian villages in the valleys. Strictly speaking, however, the hilltop youth come from settlements that are little more than outposts, considered illegal by the Israeli government.

The outposts may consist of tents or a few trailers, set up under the cover of darkness. The residents see themselves as the cutting edge of the cutting-edge movement to settle and own the whole land of Israel.

To live in an unsanctioned hilltop settlement is to dwell in a charged environment of radical ideology and practice. The government, even a conservative government like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, can come to be seen as an opposing force. Despite building new settlements, Netanyahu hasn’t rolled back the part of the Oslo agreement that divided the West Bank into zones of Palestinian and Israeli control. Although he’s often looked away long enough for new outposts to be formed, he’s also shut them down intermittently.

The hilltop youth are in the painful process of moving beyond the settler movement as it’s existed for 40 years. Religious settlers sometimes say that they’re the true Zionists, creating facts on the ground like their predecessors in the pre-1948 era of the British mandate. But on the hilltops, the association with Zionism is increasingly attenuated.

Assaf Harel, a Rutgers University anthropologist who has done extensive ethnographic work among the hilltop youth, said one young man told him, “I don’t see myself as a continuation of Zionism” but, he said, as part of “something deeper with more roots.” Those deeper roots lie in the Bible -- and in a mystical messianic vision.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that the hilltop youth who’ve turned to violence are non-Zionists. They’re post-Zionists, who believe in a Jewish state that should govern the biblical land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and maybe beyond.

They want a monarchy, ruled by a king messiah who’s advised by a consultative parliament. And they want that monarchy to apply classical Jewish law as they understand it. This would require all non-Jewish residents of the kingdom to accept Jewish sovereignty as well as the rudiments of Jewish legal authority contained in what are called the seven Noahide laws.

The attack in Duma took place a month after, and not far from, a Palestinian attack that killed a Jewish settler. Graffiti on the Dawabsheh home read “price tag” and “revenge,” implying a connection between the events and expressing the practical side of the terrorists’ project that seeks retaliation for Palestinian attacks on settlers.

A third marking at the site read, “Long live the king messiah!,” reflecting the mystical-messianic aspect of the act. The killing was supposed to function cosmically, further awakening the messianic sparks to help bring about a new Jewish kingdom on earth.

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“Long live the king messiah!” on house in Duma.
Photographer: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

So who is the king messiah, and what does he want?

The kings of Israel were anointed with oil, and the word “messiah” means “the anointed one.” But the ancient Israelites didn’t speak of the “king messiah.” It was the early Jewish community, which produced Jesus and the Christian faith, that came to understand the possibility of a messianic king whose reign would be spiritual and actual.

With a few exceptions over the centuries, the Christian associations with a king messiah have mostly stopped Jews from using the phrase to designate a living person. It re-entered contemporary Jewish religious thought roughly 30 years ago, in the lifetime of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh grand rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Schneerson, known widely as “the Rebbe,” believed fervently in the imminent advent of the messianic age. He taught and preached about the subject, urging followers to spread religious practice among Jews to hasten the messianic moment.

In the years before the Rebbe’s death in 1994, some of his followers began to declare that he was the messiah and to implore him to reveal himself. In his presence and at his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, entranced followers sang songs and posted banners declaring, “Long live our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah.” Schneerson, who had been slowed by a stroke, may not have fully understood the implications -- but in any case, he did little to damp the hopes of his followers. After his death, the belief in his messianic status didn’t abate.

What does this have to do with the settler movement?

The religious nationalists of the hilltop settlements generally aren’t followers of the Rebbe. Although many believe they are living in the beginnings of a messianic age, their messiah is more typically associated with the state of Israel and its sovereignty, not with Schneerson.

Photographer: Assaf Harel

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Enter Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, the man who more than any other has fused Chabad messianism with national-religious messianism -- and has emerged as a messianic candidate in his own right. Ginsburgh, who was born in 1944 in St. Louis, embraced orthodoxy as a young man. After studying philosophy and mathematics at the University of Chicago, and getting a master’s degree in math from Yeshiva University, he moved to Israel in 1965, engaging there with the theology of Chabad-Lubavitch and gradually becoming a full-time teacher and writer. In 1982, he founded a school that opened at the traditional site of Joseph’s tomb, in the heart of Nablus, and named it Od Yosef Chai, “Joseph Still Lives.”

In the early 2000s, the school, or yeshiva, moved to the hilltop settlement of Yitzhar. There, Ginsburgh further developed his distinctive combination of Chabad Hasidism and national-religious-settler theology. His best known writing is a short book called “Barukh ha-Gever,” “Blessed is the Man.” That’s a play on the name of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born settler who killed 29 Palestinian men and boys in prayer and injured 125 more at the mosque above the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. The book is an extended justification of Goldstein’s actions. It identifies the Palestinian people with the biblical Amalekites, whom God orders the children of Israel to extirpate.

Ginsburgh’s fusion of Chabad messianism and settler messianism is potent because it allows the identification of a specific figure as the messiah, or at least as the living person most qualified to become the messiah should the world merit his revelation. According to the Rutgers anthropologist Harel, who has spent time at the yeshiva, Ginsburgh identifies Schneerson as a “messianic model.”

Ginsburgh heads a quasi-political movement called Derech Chaim, “The Way of Life,” which aspires to make Israel into a Jewish monarchy with Ginsburgh presented as the candidate for king. This, combined with his position on the Rebbe, effectively invites followers to identity Ginsburgh as the current messiah. To Ginsburgh’s followers, the practical application of his messiahship is clear: They must commit themselves to act on behalf of the “wholeness of the land of Israel” and awaken mystical-messianic sparks by their actions. Those actions must include violence against the Amalekite enemy.

In other words, the deaths of Saad Dawabsheh and his wife and son were almost certainly understood by the killers as a redemptive messianic act. This is Jewish terrorism that goes beyond even Goldstein’s conflation of Palestinians and Amalekites: It conceives what the terrorists called “revenge” as a means to making the king messiah live and hastening the coming of his kingdom.

Yet according to Jewish tradition, God’s law continues to apply in the messianic age. How then could the terrorists intentionally firebomb a home that they knew might well have children inside?

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Photographer: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

Ali Dawabsheh, who died in the attack

As with much of Jewish law, the answer lies in a book. Not just any book, but probably the most notorious work of Jewish legal and religious thought published in the last decade, “Torat ha-Melekh,” which means “The Law of the King.” The work exists only in Hebrew, and the translations provided here are my own. Its subtitle is, roughly, “Laws of Life and Death Between Israel and the Nations.” (The Hebrew phrase used, “dine nefashot” ordinarily refers to Talmudic criminal law.)

It was published in 2009 under the imprint of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva. Its authors are two rabbis, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, who are followers of Ginsburgh.

“The Law of the King” is really two books in one. The first is a legal treatise offering new interpretations and applications of traditional Jewish legal sources regarding rules of engagement and the use of force against civilians. The second, interspersed in six “appendixes” throughout the book, is a work of mystical philosophy devoted to explaining the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. Its views are mostly drawn, the writers say, from the teachings of Ginsburgh.

Both parts of the book reach horrifying conclusions. The most well-known, and the one with chilling connections to Duma, concerns the killing of children: “There is an argument for killing them because of the future danger that will be caused if they grow up to be evil like their parents.”

In a more expanded discussion of “revenge” -- one of the words written in graffiti at the site of the Duma attack -- the writers explain that “according to this calculus, children aren't killed because of their evil, but rather because there is a general need for revenge against evildoers, and the children are those whose death will satisfy that need.”

The metaphysical dimension is equally shocking. The authors write: “In a perfected situation, there would be no prohibition on the killing of a non-Jew, because the existence of a non-Jew who does not fulfill the basic commandments is not legitimate.” Behind this position lies a mystical view that the soul of the non-Jew has less value than the Jewish soul. Indeed, the authors opine that a Jew may kill an innocent non-Jew to preserve his own life, although he may not kill an innocent Jew for the same purpose.

Many conclusions of the book would be disputed by most Orthodox rabbis. But the sources cited and discussed are all perfectly ordinary Biblical and rabbinic materials. The religious tradition offers sufficient material to justify the intentional killing of innocents -- provided the sources are interpreted the way the terrorists want. In short, “The Law of the King” provides a legal and theological blueprint for revenge killings of the kind undertaken by the new Jewish terrorists. As far as the terrorists are concerned, their actions are not merely permitted by Jewish law, but required.

When “The Law of the King” first appeared, more moderate religious Zionists filed a petition with Israel's High Court of Justice seeking to have it banned and its authors arrested for incitement to racism and violence. The authors were brought in for questioning. No one was prosecuted. The book went through three printings and garnered significant international attention -- in part because of the efforts made to suppress it.

“The Law of the King” functions much like fatwas or other legal opinions by Muslim jihadi writers that justify the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. Its reasoning matters less than its existence and form, which is more or less that of a legal or theological text.

Books by themselves are rarely sufficient to cause terrorism. But in book-oriented cultures like the yeshiva or the madrasa, works written to encourage and justify the killing of innocents play a significant role in legitimating the unthinkable. Muslim terrorists can't claim to be Islamic without invoking some Islamic authority to condone their actions. The same is true for Jewish terrorists. “The Law of the King’s” justification for revenge killings against children foretold the killing of an 18-month-old child in Duma -- and foretells more attacks to come.

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Israeli soldier outside Dawabsheh home.
Photographer: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

This is a problem Israel cannot safely ignore. But how can it be stopped?

The first step is to arrest and try the terrorists who firebombed the home in Duma. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has said Israeli authorities are “quite certain” they know who perpetrated the attacks, but that there isn’t enough evidence to arrest them. Meanwhile, as many as seven settlers have been held in administrative detention, but it isn’t clear whether these are the criminals or people who may have incited them -- nor will it be until there are arrests and trials.

When and if that happens, it’s important that the trial include a public reckoning with the religious and ideological forces that spurred the attacks. It’s not enough to say that the terrorists are an extremist fringe of the settler movement. The public, both in Israel and throughout the world, needs to understand that these terrorists have adopted a form of messianic Judaism that actively encourages the killing of innocents. This is necessary in part because the Israeli public has been too unwilling to believe that fellow Jews would intentionally kill civilians to further their religious goals.

Yet it also must be acknowledged that convicting and sentencing these terrorists probably won’t deter more attacks. The reason is simple: The terrorists, like those committed to violent jihad, aren’t motivated by everyday costs and benefits. The nature of violence in the name of religion is that the fervent believers fully expect that they could be caught and punished -- and continue their holy war. Deterring such terrorists through ordinary criminal justice isn’t realistic.

There is a possible means for suppressing this new Jewish terrorism, which Israel must at least contemplate. That approach would involve shutting down the institutions where the particular brand of messianic, nationalist mystical religion is taught. It would involve suppressing the teachings of those who provide the ideological justification and inspiration for the movement -- perhaps even arresting them for incitement to racism and incitement to violence, both of which are crimes under Israeli law.

This approach comes with two problems. The first is principle: Israel aspires to be a liberal democracy with free speech and freedom of religion. The leadership of these terrorists will argue that they’re simply expressing their religious beliefs and ideals. To make matters more complicated, the leaders’ beliefs, while certainly out of the Orthodox Jewish mainstream, rest on interpretations of the same classical Jewish texts studied and interpreted by mainstream rabbis and students. Drawing the line based on the conclusions of religious interpretation is a dangerous business. The line between inciting violence and endorsing it abstractly is razor-thin.

Practically, suppression of ideas might create sympathy for the radicals among right-wing religious settlers who share some of the terrorists’ views but don’t endorse their conclusions or methods. Arresting radical rabbis or censoring their books would alienate and radicalize nonviolent extremist leaders who would worry that they might be next. The terrorists’ views would in any case survive and spread via the Internet. Practically, the government should probably shut down Od Yosef Chai. But when the government has done so before, the yeshiva’s teaching continued in private houses.

That leaves the more fundamental -- radical, if you will -- long-term solution: The creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Putting their homes under Palestinian jurisdiction would communicate to the messianic settlers that their aspirations for a kingdom in the biblical land of Israel are but a dream. Some might wish to stay behind in a Palestinian state -- but if they refused to accept the sovereignty of that state, they wouldn’t last long.

Realistically, however, such a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not likely to come soon. The government of Israel must then take its own unilateral steps to break the terrorists’ will. At a minimum the government should shut down illegal settlements and keep them closed.

More creatively, the Israeli government could put a price tag on the price-tag movement itself. It could collectively punish the settlement movement by removing settlements or canceling planned ones in response to Jewish violence. After all, Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank have historically used similar collective punishment mechanisms against Palestinians.

The most effective long-term fix is to prove to terrorists who believe they’re at the point of redemption that they aren’t. The only way Islamic State will be defeated is by proving that it isn’t a sovereign caliphate. The only way the partisans of the king messiah will be defeated is to show them that they cannot assert sovereignty through their use of unsanctioned force against innocent people and Palestinian mosques and property. This means arresting the terrorists and dismantling their networks and their physical infrastructure -- the same treatment appropriate for terrorists of any ideology or background.

  1. The main body of international legal thought considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank to violate Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention, which says an occupier “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net